For the past 40 years, in a remote and harshly beautiful corner of northern Manitoba, Brian Ladoon has devoted his life to preserving and breeding an endangered species: the Qimmiq, Canada’s indigenous Eskimo dog. Intimate, gorgeously rendered docu “The Last Dogs of Winter” from Kiwi helmer Costa Botes intelligently surveys Ladoon’s quixotic mission, the numerous obstacles he faces, and the uneasy co-existence of man, animal and nature in the small town of Churchill (pop. 873). A wilderness lover’s delight, “Dogs” reps a shoo-in for cablers, fests and the cinematheque circuit.
One of only three surviving dog breeds indigenous to Canada, the Eskimo dogs were once essential to the native Inuit’s nomadic life in Canada’s north, but the population of these powerful, majestic looking animals dwindled to less than 100 by 1970, due to disease, government mandated slaughter, and the availability of motorized snow mobiles. A beloved local Bishop who predicted their genetic material would one day be as precious as jewels sparked Ladoon’s interest in the breed.
Helmer Botes comes to Ladoon’s story through fellow New Zealander (and producer) Caleb Ross, a former Kiwi actor. As a twentysomething, the adventuresome Ross traveled to Canada for love, but, as he notes, the affair went south, and he went north, enticed by a job posting that read, “Come to Churchill, breed Eskimo dogs, see polar bears.” (Churchill is known as one of the world’s top spots for viewing the migrating bears.)
But like Ladoon himself, the pic refuses to pander to those seeking only cute animal shots. Completing his third year on the job as Botes shoots, the affable, articulate Ross reps a distinct contrast to his tightly wound, frontiersman boss. As an eccentric character in a community full of them, Ladoon earns as many detractors as he does supporters, and the fair-minded helmer takes time (perhaps too much) to listen to all comers. Another bone of contention concerns the right of access to the government-owned land where Ladoon runs his operation.
Both Ross and Ladoon speak to some of the criticisms, including uninformed allegations that the dogs, who spend their adult life chained out of doors in sub zero temperatures, are being mistreated. Although it is true, in a perfect world, that they would benefit from running and doing the work they were once bred for, such as pulling sleds, Ladoon’s Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation has only three full-time staffers and a handful of volunteers for a 7-day-a-week grind that includes driving more than 100 miles a day just to feed the animals and make sure they’re healthy.
Filming with a lightweight HD camera and only his wife as crew (a job that required her to drive a pickup truck down vast stretches of icy road and carry a gun with rubber bullets to be prepared for rogue polar bears), Botes intercuts artfully shot interviews with spectacular outdoor scenes. Among the most captivating are those of the chained dogs interacting with the curious bears, and the lumbering white bears gamboling with one another in the snow.
Fine sound design and musical effects support the visuals, as does Thom McLeod’s atmospheric score.
The film ends with a final bit of trivia, pointing out that the breed was selected for a 1988 postage stamp and a 1997 coin. Ladoon was the breeder responsible for the models used for both.